Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne is as haunting as motion pictures get, and hasn’t left my thoughts since I saw it in a small independently run cinema some ten years ago. When a film is set in Australia, you know right of the bat it’s going to have an eerie, striking story to tell. It’s a vast, lonely place in areas, full of secrets and unexplored areas. Gabriel Byrne finds himself in a tricky situation of his own doing, playing an Irishman living in a small, isolated fishing village deep in the mountains. While on an expedition with his mates, he comes across something harrowing along a desolate stretch of river: the body of a murdered aboriginal girl. Here’s where he makes a fatal mistake.. instead of reporting it instantly, he continues over the weekend with his trip, waits until he’s back in town and then notifies the authorities, leaving her right there in the water. Once the details emerge, this causes a royal nightmare of controversy, racial tension and upset, including his wife (Laura Linney) who is horrified by the borderline inaction on his part. Was he wrong? Definitely. These snap decisions during times of great stress are common though, reactionary function not always falling into the place of logic, resulting in a mess such as this. Now as you can tell by my review, most of the film focuses on his actions and their repercussions, not so much on who killed the girl, or why. We see her in an unnerving prologue on some faraway highway, lured to a rest stop by a mysterious trucker, and then we see her alive no more. The trucker appears again throughout the film on the fringes of the main story, but never are we given clarification or catharsis to the murder side of the plot. That to me is an ultimate mood setter and thorn in the side of resolution. The cumulative result of her being found is simply an unrest hanging over the region like a blanket of uncertainty, matters only clouded further by Byrne and the storm he created by not acting right off the bat. Uncomfortable viewing, but beautifully made and not a film one soon forgets after viewing.
Loving is a respectful, reverential piece of work from cool-as-a-cucumber budding auteur Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter, Mud, Shotgun Stories). With a dramatic through line that remains on an even keel and quiet temperament for two hours, this is a somber and sad yet never overly sentimental true life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who dared to challenge the state of Virginia over their right to get married. Sensitively portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the actors were clearly directed by Nichols to behave in a very pragmatic and reserved fashion; there’s never a moment where one particular scene feels “bigger” than the previous, and this sense of dramatic neutrality helps to build a sense of grace to the entire portrait. Because that’s what this film is – a portrait of two people in a very specific time and place, and it’s beyond revolting to think that these people suffered in the way that they did, and not all that long ago in terms of America’s history.
There’s nothing over the top during Loving, no emotional grandstanding or sociopolitical speechifying, subtle or hammerhead, because Nichols is too good for that. He’s interested in the audience finding these people while observing the story, and very similar to his other 2016 effort Midnight Special, there’s much to be said about what’s not shown on screen in order for the story to progress; Nichols is a “you fill the gaps in” storyteller, which can be annoying for viewers who need everything spelled out for them. Nichols based his film on the documentary The Loving Story, by acclaimed filmmaker Nancy Buirski (By Sidney Lumet). Chad Keith’s evocative production design, Julie Monroe’s extra-patient editing, Adam Stone’s dark-hued cinematography, and the minimalist musical score from David Wingo seal the crisp and clean aesthetic package, resulting in a movie that feels wrapped with care and yet still susceptible to fresh wounds. This is an excellent piece of work that speaks to the sense of humility and respect that select people have for others.
How many shady, degenerate 70’s era Boston lowlifes does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Doesn’t matter, they’re too busy shooting at each other, the lightbulbs and everything that moves in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, the best film of the year so far. After an arms deal gone royally wrong, we get to spend a joyous, breezy hour and a half watching these halfwit scumbags blast each other to kingdom come in a not so abandoned warehouse, unfolding in real time and at a pace that has our pulses racing faster than the magazine clips can defecate shell casings. Wheatley’s output hasn’t been my cup of tea so far, but he’s won me over with this lighthearted, ballistic mini-masterpiece. It’s what I call a ‘low concept high concept’ flick, which I’m sure someone has said before, but suck it. A bunch of childish idiots in a roomful of heavy artillery, the bullets are bound to soon be flying as fast as the dry insults. The deal is simple: meet, sell a bunch of rifles to help the IRA cause, and be on their way. That’s not to be the case though, for as soon as one of them recognizes another party’s member from a violent scuffle prior, tensions mount until that first shot rings out. From there on in it’s a ‘childish game of paintball’ (to quote a friend) that escalates into a deafening fire fight filled with acidic humour and John Denver music, a hilariously counterintuitive soundtrack choice. Armie Hammer is priceless as Ord, cool as a cucumber and constantly lighting up joints mid-gunplay. Sharlto Cooley chews scenery as Vern, the preening peacock of the group, Brie Larson kicks ass and takes names, Cillian Murphy underplays the IRA consort while Michael Smiley, the butt of the geriatric jokes, gets in everyone’s face even before things go south. Patrick Bergin, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti and Jack Reynor also get their licks, but the performance of the film goes to Sam Riley, a criminally overlooked talent who’s been laying somewhat low recently. His character Stevo is indirectly the reason for all this mayhem, and he’s a walking disaster, the sleaziest little reprobate you can imagine. Riley plays him balls out and doesn’t hold back, I really wish we saw more of him in films these days. All of these bozos positively ventilate each other with bullets, no one not sustaining at least two or three gunshot wounds somewhere on their body, and once the Reservoir Dogs esque conclusion rolls around, we know that few will be left standing. Clocking in at a rapid fire ninety minutes, this is surefire entertainment for not only action fans, but anyone who loves movies, it’s a perfect example of the reason I go to the theatre. Cheerfully violent, casually profane and hysterically unapologetic. Just the way I like em’.
After an auspicious start as a hot-shot cinematographer on films such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Three O’clock High, Big, When Harry Met Sally, Miller’s Crossing, and Misery, Barry Sonnenfeld switched to full-blown director, with a bunch of mixed-bag credits throughout the last 25 years. From where I sit, Get Shorty is easily his best film, and one of the finest Hollywood comedies ever crafted. The remarkable cast included a perfect John Travolta as a Miami mob-enforcer turned wannabe Los Angeles player, Gene Hackman in a wily and hilarious performance as a has-been B-movie producer scoundrel, the alluring Rene Russo as Hackman’s ex who falls for Travolta, Dennis Farina (“They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets”), David Paymer, James Gandolfini, Danny De Vito, Delroy Lindo, Jon Gries, and many more familiar faces and character actors. Released in 1995, this came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction, and became a box office success and critical favorite. This is an endlessly re-watchable film with snappy dialogue courtesy of tremendous screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report, The Lookout) who adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel, excellent visual design from shooter Donald Peterman, a jazzy soundtrack, and splendid acting from a top-flight ensemble. I wish there was a new movie like this one coming out this weekend.
Terry Gilliam films almost always feel a bit slapdash and chaotic, it’s just the guy’s calling card to have a modicum of organized mayhem filling the fringes of whatever project he delivers. With The Imaginarum Of Dr. Parnassus, that is probably the case more so than any other film he’s made, and despite letting the clutter run away with itself a bit too much, it’s still a dazzling piece. Of course, your movie will always have a disjointed undercurrent when your lead actor passes away halfway through production, but that’s just the way it goes, and Gilliam finds a fascinating solution to that issue here. Imaginarium is in many ways a companion piece, in spirit, to The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a film he made decades earlier, both containing a sort of baroque, Da Vinci-esque splendour and sense of fantastical wonder. Christopher Plummer hides behind a gigantic Dumbledore beard as Parnassus, a magician extraordinaire who travels the land with his daughter (Lily Cole, that bodacious Botticelli bimbo) and circus troupe, including Verne ‘Mini Me’ Troyer. Years earlier he made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits, an inspired choice) using his daughter as collateral, and now Old Nick has come to reap the debt, causing quite the situation. The story is a hot mess of phantasmagoria and kaleidoscope surrealism thanks to the Imaginarium itself, a multi layered dimension-in-a-box that accompanies them on their travels. Things get complicated when they rescue dying lad Tony (Heath Ledger) who somehow ties into the tale as well. Now, this was Ledger’s very last film, its future left uncertain after his passing, but help arrived in the form of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, swooping in to play doppelgänger versions of Tony as he bounced from one plane of the imaginarium to another with Cole in tow, always one step ahead of Waits, who is a rockin’ choice to play the devil, smarming and charming in equal doses. It’s kind of a huge melting pot of images and ideas hurled into creation, but it’s a lovable one, the fun you’ll have watching it reasonably eclipses lapses in logic, plotting and pacing.
Split is creepy genre skewering from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t yet had it spoiled, it’s the sort of picture that works as one thing for most of its running time, before morphing into something else by its conclusion; was this always the intention? James McAvoy is totally wild and completely on fire in the leading role, or should I say, multiple leading roles as a guy battling intense multiple personality disorder, and possibly something else, while the trio of young actresses playing the captured girls are all excellent. There’s some great use of cramped-quarters camera placement by the inventive cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, and West Dylan Thordson’s unnerving music sets a hostile atmosphere that’s maintained all throughout the picture, despite it being a bit too long in the tooth; had this been a lean and mean 90-minuter I think it might’ve been more effective. But this is another low-budget success for Shyamalan, who seems to have recaptured his early-career groove.
I’m also not sure how smart or classy it was of Shyamalan to use sexually/emotionally exploitive content within the parameters of a silly genre flick; aspects to this film are sort of icky and surprisingly crass and ultimately unnecessary when thought about in retrospect. At least for me. Because this is another trick-narrative from the king of modern trick narratives, there could have been multiple ways for the story to develop, and I’m sort of at a loss to understand why he felt that certain thematic elements were necessary, especially when there’s very little emotional payoff in these instances. Still, it’s lots of mostly ridiculous fun (if not as enjoyable overall as Shyamalan’s previous picture, the superb and totally wicked black comedy/horror item The Visit), Haley Lu Richardson continues to be extremely photogenic, and the reveal during the final scene will certainly make lots of people giddy with excitement over the various possibilities of what’s in store for this particular cinematic universe…
1985. Directed by Howard Storm.
Howard Storm’s only feature film, and Jim Carrey’s first leading role, Once Bitten is a libidinous romp through 1985 Los Angeles. Featuring riotous levels of sexual camp supplemented by a surprisingly fresh take on the male coming of age convention; this is ’80s cult trash of the highest order.
Carrey plays a good natured teen desperate to consummate his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Relationship frustrations send him and his friends on a nightclub crawl in which he encounters a ravishing 400 year old seductress with designs on his virgin blood. The script bounces between the comedic irreverence of the decade, the inevitable sexual changes of puberty, and the ramifications losing one’s virginity. Carrey’s odyssey, punctuated with subtle makeup effects by Richard Arrington, uses Vampirism as a simulated STD while commentating on how the loss of innocence serves as a transition. Once Carrey’s Mark is in the Vampire’s grasp, everything, from his wardrobe to his relationships changes, and Carrey does a remarkable job at harnessing the subtleties of the plot and the slapstick antics of the action.
Adam Greenberg’s fluid camera work captures the gothic interior of the vampire’s lair with sweeping shots of whitewashed rooms that are offset by the vibrant colors of the city. Lauren Hutton’s turn as the sultry Countess boasts some memorable lines; however she is eclipsed by Cleavon Little’s turn as her dapper Renfield, Sebastian, bringing a genuine laugh every time he’s on screen. Jill Ohannsen’s costume design is the highlight, showcasing the vampires in gaudy black ensembles and the humans in abysmal conglomerations of the MTV era.
There are cringe-worthy moments of pure machismo that may offend sensitivities, but these are sprinkled throughout a film that generally wants to have fun with its material. The film was critically maligned by most upon its release. Thankfully, the years have been kind, with Shout Factory doing a stellar blu ray release in 2015. Once Bitten is a unique film because it hovers just beneath the excess of other sex comedies and never slips into the violence of other ’80s vampire films that would become icons of the genre.
Available now on STARZ streaming or on blu ray from Shout Factory, Once Bitten takes a simple premise and revels in its absurdity, exploring serious themes of casual sex, disease, and social expectations and twisting them into the realm of melodramatic satire. If you’re looking for a fun trip down memory lane or merely looking to waste some time with a low commitment comedy that boasts a handful of hilarious sequences and a scene stealing performance by Little, Once Bitten won’t disappoint.